by Ad Lansink7 minute read
Eurostat recently published 2012 figures on the treatment of municipal waste across the EU28. Although there is variability in the quality of the underlying data and in the approach to compiling and reporting the figures, the headline numbers still make for interesting reading. The published data shows that the share of municipal waste recycled or composted has risen significantly – from 18% in 1995 to 42% in 2012. Breaking that figure down, however, one can see that only 27% was recycled and 15% composted, while 34% was landfilled and 24% incinerated.
Unsurprisingly, recycling and composting rates are far from uniform and a significant number of Member States still have some way to go before their recycling and composting rates overtake those for incineration and land filling. Germany, Austria and Belgium are top of the class with recycling and composting rates of 65%, 62% and 57% respectively; the Netherlands follows closely behind with 50% (as does Switzerland, which whilst not a Member State also reports its figures). Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom all achieved solid but unspectacular scores between 45 and 47%, although in many cases composting accounts for 15-20 percentage points.
Frameworking towards progress
Improvements in the performance of the top and middle ranks have brought about a slight increase in the average recycling rate in Europe (excluding composting), from 22% in 2006 to 27% in 2012. However, amongst the lower echelons of recycling performance there are worrying trends of stagnation and even decline. Eastern Europe in particular represents a whole new world to win over to the recycling cause – with the exception of Slovenia, which has for some time been an excellent example of the type of change that is possible.
In my view, the European Waste Framework Directive (WFD) should pose a challenge, especially to countries that have not yet reached the European average. The challenge is far from impossible – there is a strong correlation between recycling performance and the extent to which legislative instruments, communications and public awareness measures have been employed. However, it is perhaps timely to review the rationale for a focus on increasing recycling.
Article 4 of the WFD enshrines the waste hierarchy into European law: it sets a priority order that member states must follow, whether in policy, legislation or operational waste management. Recycling is in the middle of the hierarchy: reusing materials – the real purpose of recycling – comes below waste prevention and re-use of products, but above other recovery processes (such as energy recovery) and disposal (primarily landfilling). Since the majority of the materials we employ can be reused, recycling is both qualitatively and quantitatively at the heart of successful waste and integrated chain management.
Although material reuse (recycling) is less good than product reuse, sooner or later products reach the end of their reuseable lives. At that point, we should aim to retrieve the materials they contain at an acceptable cost, but some materials are capable of going through only a finite number of cycles. Where materials reuse is either economic or impracticable, the use of high-efficiency energy from waste (EfW) plants can be complementary to maximised recycling activity, at least for some waste streams. In hard cases, a Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) should be the deciding factor: but increasingly, there are few hard cases left to consider.
A material-specific preference for recycling over energy recovery is linked to the energy needed to transform primary raw materials into useful products, which accounts for a considerable part of the impacts a LCA analysis identifies.
The case for recycling metals and glass is strong, as they can easily be converted into secondary raw materials with relatively little energy. Fermentation of organic waste to produce biogas and compost also extracts added value from waste. The processing of used paper and cardboard gradually diminishes the length of the constituent fibres until the material can no longer be reused, but until that point paper recycling is still yields greater environmental benefits than combustion.
The case of plastics merits special attention. The wide variety of material types coupled with endemic oil and gas price fluctuations make the balance between recycling and EfW complicated. Different types of plastic must be separated from one another in order for the material to be reused, and this is rarely done at source. Nevertheless, improved separation techniques – in particular the use of infrared detection – and the growing market for secondary plastics still tip the balance towards recycling.
If we are to improve plastics recycling further, the extent to which the materials can be applied and utilised without ending up in down cycling must become a consideration in the development of new plastics and plastic products. For instance, the Dutch Polymer Innovation Programme (PIP) is undertaking work that could be both environmentally and economically valuable. The research focusses on four themes:
- durable high-volume performance materials;
- new polymers with sustainable properties;
- coatings and membranes with high added value; and
- high-tech and bio-materials, stimulating the bio-based economy.
This type of research has an important contribution to make, not just to the facilitation of recycling but to helping tackle the rising scarcity of raw materials and energy. It could also create important new economic opportunities for the Dutch polymer industry.
Terms of the debate
Since the value of material reuse typically exceeds that of energy recovery, some thought is needed regarding why EfW has a large and growing role in European waste management, despite its low position in the waste hierarchy. I suspect part of the problem is confusion over definitions. The Dutch Waste Management Plan, for example, follows the WFD in giving overlapping definitions of:
- ‘Recovery’: any operation the principal result of which is that waste serves a useful purpose.
- ‘Recycling’ any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances, whether for their original or other purposes. This includes the reprocessing of organic waste, but not energy recovery (i.e. reprocessing waste into materials that are intended to be used as fuel) or the use of waste as a filling material.
So, ‘recovery’ is used as an umbrella term including reuse, recycling and use of waste as fuel and for backfilling.
One consequence of this is to make it uncertain how the Eurostat figures on ‘recovery’ should be read. Further, the interchangeably and sometimes juxtaposed use of the terms recycling, recovery and regeneration in relation to the categories of recovery (R1 to R12) in the WFD is not conducive to a single interpretation. These definitions need to be revisited to increase their alignment with the preference order of the waste hierarchy. Thinking of recycling as more akin to reuse than energy recovery will help to prevent any false equivalences being drawn.
Most consumers in Western Europe are now sufficiently environmentally aware to take material reuse for granted, as evidenced by positive public reactions in countries implementing plastics recycling. In Eastern Europe, however, there is still a long way to go to reach the current average of 27%, let alone surpass it. However, Western European cannot afford to be complacent. Although countries already achieving high recycling rates are unlikely to see performance drop, 27% recycling is far from being enough for even a partial transition to a circular economy.
While prevention and reuse of products are potentially substantial contributors towards a circular economy, reusing materials will remain the most quantitatively important element in our transition to more sustainable growth. Its success will depend on the extent to which pro-recycling policies are implemented, such as:
- Improving and strengthening the logistical infrastructure for the separate collection of recyclable waste streams;
- Fine tuning of control, authority and responsibilities between the free market, government and business – market regulation seems necessary, but should not be prohibitive;
- Timely and thorough assessment of markets for recycled products, with input from past experience;
- Stimulating and promoting knowledge, sharing information with all stakeholders active in the product and waste chain;
- Combating stigmatisation of products from the recycling industry, including engagement with businesses making use of primary raw materials; and
- The consistent interpretation and implementation of producer responsibility, while allowing industry the possibility of finding the ways in which targets can be achieved.
Finally, the new European Commission would do well to amend the WFD so as to clarify the place of material reuse within the waste hierarchy. Recycling must be separated from recovery, both legally and functionally. This will be a challenge for politicians, policymakers and society, but is necessary if the bigger challenge of creating a more circular economy is to be met.
This article is adapted from a chapter of De Kracht van de Kringloop, by Ad Lansink and Hannet de Vries-in ‘t Veld, a book on the history and future of Lansink’s Ladder. It appears here for the first time in English.